Manchester entrepreneurs: Martin Hannett

Last week saw the 38th anniversary of Manchester band Joy Division finishing working with producer Martin Hannett on their second and final studio album Closer. For both the band and Hannett, it was career-defining work.

Closer was released by Factory Records on July 18, 1980, posthumously following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, two months earlier. Today, Closer is widely recognised as one of the most significant albums of the early 1980s, with Hannett acknowledged as the architect of the dark, distinctive sound.

The songs on Closer were drawn from two distinct periods. The earlier guitar-driven compositions were written during the latter half of 1979, the album’s other songs were written in early 1980, including more prominent use of synthesisers, driven by Hannett’s burgeoning influence.

It’s an exercise in dark controlled passion, the music stands up on its own as the band’s epitaph. The almost suffocating, claustrophobic yet creative world of Curtis is evident in the lyrics, even more austere, haunting, and inventive than its predecessor, Unknown Pleasures. It is Joy Division’s finest work, a start-to-finish masterpiece, a flawless encapsulation of everything the group sought to achieve.

During the Closer sessions Hannett would go even further with his work refining Curtis’ vocals. Alongside working on Love Will Tear Us Apart, this took the music stylistically into something more sombre, subtle, whose lyrical content was in hindsight indicative of what was to come to pass two months later.

Young men in dark silhouettes, some darker than others, looking inwards, looking out, discovering the same horror and describing it with the same dark strokes of deeply meaningful music. The music and tonal production levels swoop up and down unpredictably, never standing still, never resting. The astonishing variety is schemed and architected by Martin Hannett, giving the music the space and the air it needs.

The album covers the Joy Division spectrum of that moment with a sense of morbid hopelessness. See it for yourself. Judge for yourself. But don’t take it too serious (we all take it too serious sometimes). Closer is breath taking music, a sharing of something. Created by Joy Division. Made by Martin Hannett.

James Martin Hannett (31 May 1948– 18 April 1991), initially credited as Martin Zero, was an English record producer and an original partner/director at Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. His distinctive production style utilised unorthodox sound recording and technology, and has been described as sparse, spatial, and cavernous.

Born in Manchester, Hannett was raised in a working class family in Miles Platting. He went to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, where he earned a degree in chemistry but chose not to pursue the profession. Hannett’s uncle was a bass player and gave his nephew a bass guitar when he was fourteen, sparking his interest in music. His production work began with home made animation film soundtracks, moving next to mixing live sound at local pub gigs.

Always a music head (he was forever rebuilding his hi-fi), Hannett found time to learn bass guitar, mix live sound, and work as a roadie. Eventually he would quit his day job to run Music Force, a musicians’ co-operative who booked gigs (including the iconic Manchester venue Band on the Wall), arranged PA hire, and also operated a lucrative fly-posting business.

Punk induced the birth of three significant record labels in Manchester: New Hormones, Rabid, and latterly Factory. Hannett was a founder of Rabid. He first attracted attention in 1977, when, as Martin Zero, he produced the first independent punk record, the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP. Under the same moniker he produced early records by Salford punk poet John Cooper Clarke.

The rising producer first worked with Joy Division on two tracks contributed by the band to the Factory Sample EP, recorded in October 1978, then went on to do his career defining work with the band in 1979 to 1980. Thereafter, New Order, Magazine, Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses all came under his influence.

However, the death of Curtis hit him hard, and after Factory, Hannett’s career declined due to his heavy drinking and drug use, especially heroin. Hannett died 18 April, 1991 aged 42 in Manchester, as a result of heart failure. His headstone at Manchester Southern Cemetery pays him tribute as the creator of The Manchester Sound, a fitting tribute to a true musical visionary.

The truth is, without his spark of production genius, Joy Division could have ended up as just another ’80s post-punk band, and British music might have missed out on one of its defining sounds. So, what made Hannett one of the most entrepreneurial, creative and innovative Producers of his time, with a legacy and reputation that has endured almost forty years?

  1. Be prepared to experiment.

Hannett’s production techniques incorporated new looping technology to treat musical notes with an array of filters, echoes and delays. Hannett had a collection of echo devices, which he had amassed and called his ‘bluetop echo and delay boxes’. He was ahead of the game technically.

Legend has it that he once forced Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris to take apart his drum kit during a recording session and reassemble it, with parts from a toilet. He reputedly had Morris set up his kit on a first floor flat roof outside the fire escape, and also in a cotton mill lift, seeking experimental new sounds.

He also built a device made to recreate the beats he heard in his head – which in turn came from the old air compressors in the huge empty and decaying Manchester factories.

Other favoured tricks in Zero’s sonic arsenal included reverb, phasing, compression, repeat echoes, deliberate overload, and the Marshall time modulator – anything, indeed, that created space, weirdness and sonic holograms. Hannett’s unorthodox and experimental production methods resulted in drum sounds mixed with synthesisers that were complex and highly distinctive.

  1. Have high ambition – without compromise.

In the image of industrial Manchester, giving Joy Division that dark, empty, distinctive atmosphere, Hannett was obsessive in his attention to detail and quest for getting things right.

After making his name with Rabid Records, Hannett hit his stride with Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. The prolific partnership saw massive success, famously producing Joy Division’s classic song Love Will Tear Us Apart. Originally recorded in 1979, Hannett disliked the original version, as did frontman Ian Curtis, and it was redone in 1980. The process highlights Hannett’s search for perfection, particularly with percussion and vocals.

Drummer Stephen Morris recalls how Hannett called him back to the studio in the early hours of the morning to re-record drum sounds after spending the entire day creating the original sound. Hannett’s ambition was to be different yet worked on finishing the sound until he got it exactly as he wanted it.

  1. Be relentless

As for Hannett’s studio regime, musicians were discouraged from entering his working area, or participating in mixing – if ever they dared.

Peter Hook, bassist of Joy Division and New Order described Hannett’s working style. Martin didn’t give a fuck about making a successful record. All he wanted to do was experiment. His attitude was that you get loads of drugs, lock the door of the studio and stay in there all night and you see what you’ve got the next morning. And you keep doing that until it’s done.

Hannett himself was unwilling – or unable – to define his trademark style: A certain disorder in the treble range? I don’t know, I can’t tell you. All I know is that I am relentless, I keep going until I find what I want to find.

Radio sessions aside, over the course of around eight separate recording sessions Hannett would produce every studio track released by Joy Division, including subsequent singles Atmosphere and Love Will Tear Us Apart.

  1. Be a catalyst for others

Hannett felt able to adopt the sometimes confrontational role of catalyst in relation to ‘his’ bands. He just seemed to have the knack of putting everything in the right setting. He works in a totally different way to any other producer we’ve recorded with. He doesn’t even re-play the songs on the tape very much. He has it all in his head. He’s a weird bloke but we work really well with him. I had been stuck in a rut and I needed someone like that to show me some sort of light. Martin was just the right person.

Hannett’s unique blend of sound and chemistry lead to many labelling the producer a ‘musical alchemist’. It was almost alchemy. He was fascinated by chemicals and musical explosions, he was an alchemist of noise. It was his great gift and also his great curse.

This DIY approach to production was a hallmark of Hannett’s style, making a mockery of the megabucks music mogul-driven industry, reflecting the startup ethos and philosophy of Factory Records.

Hannett’s career embarked on a downward trajectory after 1982. For the rest of his time, his production work covered a disparate array of minor records, Sadly, by this time Hannett’s own drug habit was out of control, resulting in five years of narcotic exile, trapped in a chemical stupor.

As a Producer, Martin Hannett’s dazzling golden age was all too brief, lasting from the autumn of 1978 to the middle of 1981. Too leftfield and obsessive to sustain a mainstream career, and tied to his home city for long periods by drug dependence, Hannett was a musical entrepreneur and genius.

The Mancunian record Producer helped transform a defiant collective of musicians into an iconic collection of records on an iconic record label that brought the sound of Manchester to the masses. Described as petulant, moody, overbearing, a pain in the arse, he was a pioneer, he wasn’t messing about. Martin did it 100%.

Hannett rated Closer as his most complete production. Nearly forty years on, give it a listen. The untimely death of singer Ian Curtis in May 1980 hit him hard spiritually and mentally, and perhaps contributed to his subsequent decline. Be that as it may, the peerless Joy Division catalogue remains the body of work for which Martin Hannett is best remembered, a true innovator and entrepreneur of Manchester.

 

 

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